The Woman in the Waiting Room


Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

Hi, everyone. Hope you don’t mind the anonymous post. This is my first time asking for advice in this group, because thank the Lord this is my first time needing any guidance in this particular area. For context, I’m the graveyard shift receptionist for the local hospital’s ER, and last week I had an unsettling run-in with a patient… And here’s where I could use your opinions and expertise, my fellow healthcare employees and professionals — am I ethically able to report the situation to the police?  

God, this is gonna sound like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” Please, just bear with me. Here’s what happened.

My 3 a.m. alarm had just sounded, which meant I was officially halfway through my shift — and it was time for my crossword puzzle. The population of the town our ER serves is a whopping 5,000, so I usually have a lot of down time — like, sometimes I’ll go a whole shift without taking any patients. And that’s how this particular shift was going, until the automatic doors swung open and in wobbled an elderly woman. I did what I always do when a patient walks in — throw my crossword puzzle to the floor and pretend to be busy on my computer. Immediately, I knew what I was dealing with. The woman was wearing one of those hideous flower-patterned, calf-length cotton nightgowns no one’s called fashionable since 1930. Easy, I thought. She’s an escaped patient from the nursing home across the way. We get sneaky little elderly fugitives over here all the time.

But as I picked up the phone to notify the nursing home, I took a closer look at the woman — she didn’t fit the bill of the usual suspect. She wasn’t confused-looking or disheveled. In fact, she looked put-together and kind of adorable. I gently put the phone back down and addressed the sweet granny.

“Hi honey, what can we do for ya?” I beamed.

She replied in a sweet voice that sounded like fresh-baked cookies: “Well, sweetheart, I’m not sure. I have every reason to believe I’m seriously injured.”

I exhaled a chuckle, deployed the ole’ brow furrow/head tilt combo, and politely inquired as to what in fresh hell she meant by that. She, too, chuckled and told me she knew it sounded insane, but she’d just been attacked in her home by an intruder whom she somehow fought off… but she was positive she must’ve gotten injured in the process — she said she still had plenty of epinephrine pumping through her body, so she couldn’t yet identify what hurt.

She was right, though — she did sound insane. I got her name, Norma Fay (a pseudonym, of course, continuing with the theme of anonymity), and told her to take a seat… while I figured out how I was gonna handle this. Clearly, lovely Norma had just had a bad dream or a one-off psychotic episode, because, physically, she looked fine. But, of course, it was gonna cost Miss Norma a small fortune and every last one of those ugly nightgowns she owned to have a nurse or doctor tell her that. So, since the waiting room was otherwise empty without another patient in sight, I decided to get my daily good deed out of the way early.

“Alright, Norma,” I said as I sank into the chair right across from hers, pen and clipboard in hand. “Tell me everything.”

Art of a female figure standing in the doorway of an Emergency Room.

Art by Anonymous

She placed her hands on her lap and twiddled her thumbs in a manner that told me she was about to spill the pipingest, hottest tea of the week. And boy, was she ever. She told me that just an hour or so prior, she was lying in bed, unable to sleep, kept awake by her poor decision of drinking coffee post-4 p.m., when all of the sudden, her Shih Tzu “Muffin” jolted awake and stood at attention.

Norma said she, too, had heard something, but she just assumed it was the creaking and cracking of her 100-year-old mini mansion. But when she heard floorboards squeaking, she knew something wasn’t right… Muffin got the same vibe and ran yipping and yapping out of the room to investigate. Muffin’s woofing got further away but didn’t cease, so Norma grabbed the butcher knife she kept on her bedside table and crept out of the bedroom and down the hallway to see where Muffin was and if she was barking at someone who needed a little old-fashioned acupuncture therapy.

Norma traced the barking to her favorite room in the house — the library. And as she stood in the hallway, back against the wall trying to muster up the courage to come face-to-face with the intruder, amid Muffin’s barks, she heard the quietest of whispers: “Shh, Muffin!” Something about whoever it was calling her pooch by name — Norma just couldn’t handle it. She stormed into the library, waving her knife in the air, screaming words far too colorful to repeat here.

She froze for a moment as her eyes locked with the intruders’, which were peering through the torn fabric of a make-shift ski mask. All at once, Norma resumed her profanity-ridden screams and spartan-like surprise attack — and she said she almost got him. Her knife was poised to pierce his chest, puncture a vital organ to two, and maybe even make it to the other side — but Norma’s burning rage was no match for the man’s cat-like reflexes. He grabbed her knife-wielding arm and stopped her momentum with ease.

She raised her other arm to slug him in the face, but the dude caught that arm, too. Norma struggled with all her might to get loose, but the man’s grip overpowered her. The two stumbled around the library, knocking books off shelves and nicknacks off the desk, but it didn’t seem like the masked bandit had plans to harm her — Norma said it was clear he’d come only to burgle her home under the cloak of night. What he wanted to steal, Norma in the moment wasn’t sure — could’ve been her collection of imported diamonds, her cash stacks of life savings, or her barrels upon barrels of individually wrapped soup crackers.

As she and the man struggled, Norma realized he wasn’t leaving without getting what he wanted… So she played her last card — a swift knee to the crotch. The intruder yelped and shoved Norma into the wall, where she conked her noggin so hard she nearly fainted. But she clung to reality and watched as the intruder limped in the direction of her most prized possession — behind her heaviest Black Ironwood bookshelf, in a safe tucked neatly into the wall, was an 1898 Faberge Egg. Like, one of those decorative eggs the royal family used to be obsessed with and for some reason there’s only like 70-something in existence.

I wanted to press as to how she got her hands on one of those bad boys — like, was she a professional art thief or just a skilled antiques collector? But before I could ask, Norma pressed on to the climax of the story — she stood against the wall holding her stinging head as the man was struggling to move the bookshelf and gain access to the safe. The sight of this reignited one last fire inside of her — she staggered over to the man in an attempt to foil his plans, but right as she got a few feet away, his heaving was successful at pushing the bookshelf, which weighed a couple hundred pounds, over, right on top of Miss Norma, pressing her flat against the ground like a geriatric pancake.

“Wow, sounds like your guardian angel was working overtime tonight!” I said.

“Don’t worry — she gets time-and-a-half,” she replied with a stifled snicker — but her half-hearted smile quickly dropped to a straight face. “Can you keep a secret?” She asked.

Before I could get out my full reply, which was going to be, “Well, depending on what it is, I probably legally have to,” Norma already had her eyes fixated, staring into space, with a single tear gliding down her cheek.

“On the record, the story ends there. Bookshelf on top of me, intruder gets away,” she explained. “But off the record… I saw who it was.”

She said the bookshelf had fallen just so that her shoulders and head were poking out — and once the man realized she was pinned, instead of taking what he came for and fleeing, he ran to her side… and when she told me what he said, it sent a chill down my spine.

“Are you ok, grandma?”

The man ripped off his mask and placed it under Norma’s head — and once his face came into focus, she realized she was staring into the tearful eyes of her precious, 17-year-old grandson. Crazy plot twist, right? I thought she was pulling my leg, but Norma once again asked me to keep it between us, because her grandson is really a good kid — and she doesn’t want to see him get in trouble for a silly mistake. With that, Norma let out a sigh of relief. She thanked me for chatting with her and told me she was sure the adrenaline must’ve worn off by now, but she felt fine, so she was gonna head out.

I assured her that if a shelf as large and heavy as she described truly toppled over on her, she needed to be evaluated by a trained professional stat. She reluctantly agreed, so I hopped out of my seat, high-tailed it through the double doors into the treatment zone and grabbed my night shift RN buddy to come escort poor Norma to an eval room. He and I walked back through the double doors into the waiting room, and I went straight to my desk, melted into my chair, and was back into my crossword within seconds. But before I could even write the answer to five across, my buddy’s voice cut through my laser-like focus. He asked where she was.

“Back corner,” I barked. “Literally the only person in the room,” I whispered to myself.

He sighed in the voice of a tired mother of five scolding her middle child and told me he didn’t have time for another one of my half-baked pranks — he had actual work to do.

I rose to my feet, exasperated by my buddy’s selective blindness, and pointed bitterly to Norma’s seat — which was empty. Vacant. Unoccupied. Miffed, my buddy stormed back through the double doors and left me sitting there wondering if we had an elderly woman wandering around town unknowingly suffering from internal bleeding… or if I had officially lost every last one of my precious marbles. Nuh uh. No way, I thought. I wouldn’t be excelling at my crossword if I was off my rocker, right? Maybe she went to the bathroom…?

I was about to meander over and check my theory, but then the radio buzzed: “Methodist, we’ve got a patient heading your way in wagon 27 — possible critical condition. Prepare for arrival.”

That’s us — Methodist… which meant go time. Once I got out of my chair and walked to the doors, the ambulance had arrived — and the EMTs lacked a sense of urgency. Which, in this business, isn’t good news. EMT number one hopped out of the back of the wagon and approached me, a bead of sweat dripping down her face.

“We lost her,” she said. “Resuscitation attempts failed… Can you talk to the kid?”

“Sure,” I replied, peering into the back of the ambulance to see a teenage-looking boy with his head in his hands. “Who is he?”

In that moment, my heart stopped and my throat tightened — because to the left of the boy, dangling off the gurney, was a section of one of those hideous flower-patterned, calf-length cotton nightgowns… that no one’s called fashionable since 1930.

“Kid’s her grandson,” the EMT’s voice pierced through the ringing in my head. “He’s the one who found her.”

Everything after that is kind of a blur… I know I got the kid a warm blanket and water, but I can’t remember much else. By the time I came out of whatever trance I was in, the woman’s death had hit the news. The media is calling it a freak accident, local police are using it as a reminder to properly secure heavy furniture and haven’t once used the word “foul play,” and the entire community has been quick to hail her grandson as a hero for trying to save her. I guess what I’m trying to say is I think it’s safe to assume that I’m the only one who knows the real truth…

And that’s what’s been stumping me; the question that’s been chipping away at my sanity and haunting my mind — does HIPAA hold any water if the patient was a ghost?